Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?

This post has been inspired by Thomas Macentee’s 2012 update to the 2011 “Genea-Opportunities” series of blog posts.[1] Longtime readers may recognize that it was this discussion that originally led to the birth of this blog in its current incarnation. The third topic Thomas has proposed for this week is “What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?”

Despite the subtitle of this blog (“Genealogy as a Profession”), I have never discussed the central question that most aspiring genealogists struggle with: what do we charge for my services?

One resource that is often recommended is Chapter 10, “Setting Realistic Fees” by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking in the book Professional Genealogy. In this chapter Ms. Luebking puts forth a relatively simple two-part formula to calculate your rates: (1) Salary + Expenses + Profit = Targeted Income; and (2) Targeted Income / Billable Hours = Hourly Fee.[2]

Using this method, if your “targeted income” is $80,000, and you can work 20 billable hours per week (x 50 weeks = 1000 hours), then your hourly fee would be calculated as $80 per hour. Simple enough.

Unfortunately I disagree that this formula can produce a realistic figure. To me, one should set their fees based on external factors rather than internal factors. Think about every job you have ever had. You did not walk into the interview and say, “This is how much you have to pay me.” Being self-employed, of course, you have the option to set whatever rate you decide. You can base this on anything that you want.

My own rates are based primarily on a broad survey of other professional genealogists. What do others with similar skills, experience, and education charge? This, in my opinion, is the fair way to set my fees. It has less to do with what I think I need, and more to do with what the market allows.

I believe that the market should control our rates for two reasons: the dangers of overpricing and the dangers of underpricing.

The danger of overpricing

Suppose you are an aspiring professional genealogist. You have decided to quit your job and start taking clients full-time. You have never conducted any research other than on your own family. You have never completed a genealogy course of study, other than a few local society meetings and regional conferences. You use the equation above and decide to come out of the gate charging $80 per hour, in order to maintain your lifestyle.

With your first few clients, you realize that you are in over your head a little bit. You have a few unhappy clients–not because their expectations were too high, but because you could not deliver value equal to your rate. Suddenly these unhappy clients have told their friends who told their friends, and to a small but growing group of people “professional genealogy” is now considered a scam.

This hurts all of us–not just you or your clients.

The danger of underpricing

Some prospective clients will try to get anything they can for free. They will write to you for advice, asking specific questions about their family, and eventually start asking you for “favors” to pick up records, etc. Part of the problem is that many genealogy consumers are on fixed incomes and quite frankly can’t afford to hire a professional. Another part of the problem is that genealogical research skills are often undervalued even among professionals, and this attitude spreads to consumers.

Underpricing is quite often a result of undervaluing what your skill is worth. Again this is why we must conduct market research. Find out what other genealogists with similar skill, education, and experience are charging. And, equally important, be honest with yourself as to what your level of skill, education, and experience really is. If you have been researching the same family for 25 years, this is different from a professional genealogist with 25 years of experience researching hundreds (or thousands) of different, unrelated families.

Doing market research

The greatest resource for conducting market research into what other genealogists charge is the Members Directory of the Association of Professional Genealogists. Here you can read the profiles of all 2000-plus members of the APG–not all of whom take clients.

The members’ profiles provide general qualifications: education, experience, qualifications, specialties. You can search for specific locations or specialties or even keywords using the Search function of the Directory. But don’t stop there. Most profiles do not provide specific information on rates. However, many professional genealogists have their own websites. Follow the links to their sites for more information. Don’t stop at one, either–look at a few dozen. Find those most similar to yourself, and average their rates. You can make small adjustments as needed based on your local average cost of living. (Living in Manhattan is a different scale than living in Kansas.)

In general–in my opinion–your rates should reflect the value that you are able to provide based on your skills, education, and experience. Have I repeated those three factors enough yet? These three factors are among the most important when it comes to many other aspects of professional genealogy as well–not just setting your rates.

What do my fellow professional genealogists think?

SOURCES:

[1] Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES – 2012 UPDATE,” Geneabloggers blog, posted 9 July 2012 (http://www.geneabloggers.com : accessed 9 July 2012). Thomas MacEntee, “GENEA-OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY),”  Geneabloggers blog, posted 18 April 2011.

[2] Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, “Chapter 10: Setting Realistic Fees,” in Professional Genealogy (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001), pages 193-202.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Charging for genealogy: what is it worth?,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 11 July 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Michael,

    I totally 100% agree with you on this. Great job.

    ~Caroline

    Reply

  2. Fantastic post, Michael. Fitting, because we were just having this conversation. This was our “fee month” in ProGen 15. I couldn’t agree more. It’s not an easy nut to crack with a simple formula. There are too many factors involved to take it lightly.

    Reply

  3. Posted by toc5871 on July 12, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Thanks for your insight Michael. Like Steph said we just finished with this in ProGen and it was definitely an experience to see the market research for the different areas of the US.

    Reply

  4. Good advice! This is how I figured what I could charge in Kansas. When I was actively taking clients I was the most expensive professional genealogist in the state. And I turned down clients. The more I charged the better quality of client project I got. I left document retrieval to the local genealogical society and often referred potential clients to it.

    Reply

  5. I love that you reinforce that providing bad research and/or charging too little hurts us all. I am contacted by aspiring genealogists several times a month and they invariably throw out the idea of “low rates to attract high returns.” Charging ridiculously low rates doesn’t help them and – as you say – it doesn’t help the profession.

    Reply

  6. I think it’s a combination of all of the above considerations and it won’t be the same for any two people. Just be cautious not to undervalue your skill set. Mary’s points have held true for me over the years.

    Reply

  7. Posted by MikeF on July 14, 2012 at 5:58 am

    Michael,

    As someone who does not do genealogy for hire, but does belong to the APG (without a page in the directory), I have read a lot on this topic over time. I commend you for going against the grain and placing emphasis on external market factors as those that can best produce realistic rates, and I would imagine credentials and experience come a close second.

    Also it is important that you note that that the danger of underpricing is to the researcher *his/her self* and not to the profession as others seem to think. Individual researchers do not owe it to their peers to implicitly collude to keep rates high(er) in my opinion. Based on seeing the rates of various researchers over time, there is a top tier charging $50-$75+ that seems mainly focused on forensic work and those working for large genealogy research firms, i.e. the top-dollar providers. Then there are credentialed researchers in the next tier that seem to charge in the $35-$50 range, with the next tier below that comprised mainly of non-credentialed but likely competent experienced researchers, charging in the $25-$35 range. The lowest tier charging $15-$20 seems mainly to be comprised of record pullers and likely less experienced and competent researchers.

    You have noted in the past that for yourself you must have other sources of income in addition to clients who pay for research, and which seems true for other credentialed professionals. The question though is at what price point can someone who is established have “all the work that they can eat”, i.e. be employed full-time in client work. I suspect that in today’s economic climate it is in the 3rd tier range, i.e. $25-$35, and probably more like $25 exactly. Naturally working less hours per week at a higher rate is more beneficial that working full-time for less, in that there is more free time for other activities. So it is a sliding scale that can be perhaps be optimized to produce the most income via client work for the least hours worked.

    I imagine that those on the 3rd tier need to maximize their income and do so by charging less. And maybe even getting credentialed just allows them to do so full-time at the lower rate via a competitive advantage over non-credentialed researchers. But the thought expressed by some that they owe it to their peers to charge more to float the average rate higher is ludicrous. They should do what benefits themselves the most. And comparing to what attorneys/plumbers/etc.make as some do is apples and oranges.

    If in the future I were interested in researching for others, my realistic expectation for a rate likely to produce full-time work while not doing forensic work, *after becoming established and known*, would be in the $25 range and with a credential adding $10+ to same. If the APG ever did a survey that had a high contribution rate from those seeking to do client work full-time, and which covered both rates and average hour/year spent on client work, I suspect it would dissuade many aspiring professionals due to an inability of even a simple majority to find enough clients to work full-time. Only those with a Jacobus-like determination to work full-time in genealogy no matter what would not be put off. And given that despite the attempts of some professionals to “professionalize” genealogy with barriers to entry (licensing), a self-learner without a degree but who puts in the time learning and gaining proper experience (years), can make what today many would be glad to make, i.e. $25+ an hour, that is not a bad deal to many I would think.

    MikeF

    Reply

  8. Posted by Jade on July 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Michael, your procedural suggestion is quite sensible. From the standpoint of the occasional customer of skilled researchers, I have seen instances where I think the person is under-valuing their services. This observation is enabled by my own ability to understand what has gone into the person’s work, which possibly most ‘consumers’ do not understand. When the person has gone an extra mile in one way or another, in my opinion the standard rates don’t apply, and I have given significant bonuses. I don’t know how to value one researcher’s *dream* that told her where to find something, though . . . .

    Reply

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